The events of recent years, and especially this year have taken India out of its comfort zone, writes Valdai Club expert Alexey Kupriyanov. India felt quite comfortable in the previous reality; the new one puts it before a large number of challenges, which the Indian leadership has so far successfully overcome, once again demonstrating an exceptional ability not to quarrel with anyone more than necessary and to extract maximum profit from the conflicts between other great powers.
Over the past decades, India’s foreign policy has been considered a model of strategic balancing: New Delhi has managed to maintain good relations with Moscow, Washington, Tehran, and London. This was all thanks to the seemingly indestructible liberal world order. In political terms, it assumed unequal conditions for member states: those who were unconditionally loyal to the United States that claimed hegemony or were among the so-called “civilised countries”, could consider themselves safe. Those countries that generally recognised US hegemony and Western dominance, or disagreed but did not try to challenge it, also felt relatively calm. Those which tried to resist this domination or successfully took on the role of troublemaker, found themselves in the position of pariahs, threatening an imperfect, but generally working system, built on the basis of numerous checks, balances and implicit obligations.
In this situation, India could implement its key foreign policy imperatives — the desire for sovereignty, and being a great power with accelerated economic development. Each of these three imperatives is deeply rooted in India’s identity.
After two hundred years of British rule, India had experienced deindustrialisation and deurbanisation, becoming one of the most impoverished countries in the world, shaken by regular mass starvation. In the Indian national discourse, this decline in industry, commerce and living standards is explained by the fact that the British colonial system was built in such a way as to suck all the life out of India. India paid for the British Industrial Revolution by sacrificing its interests to British Rule in the East. This won’t happen again: India will not, under any circumstances, sacrifice its own interests for the sake of others.
British colonialism deprived India not only of economic prosperity, but also of its rightful place in the world community: once one of the great powers, India subsequently lost this status. From the very first years of independence, the leadership of the new India set the goal of returning it by building up military, political and, most importantly, economic power.
A developed economy, in the understanding of the Indian elites, is a necessary foundation for obtaining the status of a great power. This understanding has historic roots: first, because of the close ties between the leadership of the Indian National Congress and the commercial and industrial circles of the Indian bourgeoisie, who are interested in increasing their role in governing the country (it is not by chance that, right on the eve of independence, large industrialists proposed the so-called “Bombay plan”, which provided for a large role of corporations in governing the country), and, second, because of the passion for Fabian socialism, which required the creation of a powerful economic, primarily industrial basis for further development.
These three imperatives have remained relevant to this day, determining the actions of the Indian leadership on the foreign policy front. In the era of bipolar confrontation, the Indian leadership made a lot of efforts to link together the Non-Aligned Movement, thereby increasing its significance in the international arena, and skilfully manoeuvred between the USA and the USSR. During the period of the liberal order, India could easily build economic power by occupying a niche as an exporter of cheap IT services. In addition, since 2000, India has dramatically improved relations with the American hegemon, which is interested in India, first as an ally in the fight against Islamist terrorism, and second as the counter-hegemon in the face of China.
The events of recent years, and especially this year, however, have taken India out of its comfort zone. India felt quite comfortable in the previous reality; the new one puts it before a large number of challenges, which the Indian leadership has so far successfully overcome, once again demonstrating an exceptional ability not to quarrel with anyone more than necessary and to extract maximum profit from the conflicts between other great powers.
Washington is one of the top priority partners for New Delhi. The US is the only superpower at the moment, and there is no reason for India to quarrel with it. The United States views India as a springboard against China, and, in the American perception, the Indian-Chinese rivalry is predetermined by the very fact of the proximity of the two Asian giants. They will inevitably clash over spheres of influence; therefore, the United States does not need to enter into a full-fledged alliance with India, it can simply strengthen its military capabilities without binding itself with unnecessary obligations. India’s important role in US strategy prompts the US to turn a blind eye to many things that other countries would be blamed for, such as India’s treatment of the Kashmir issue. Instead, India — “the world’s largest democracy” — is automatically listed among the “correct democracies”, while Washington and New Delhi are declared “natural allies”.
The Indian leadership is completely satisfied with this: besides, who would refuse a mutually beneficial partnership with a superpower that asks for almost nothing in return? More than two million Indians living in the US and are actively investing in India, helping to boost the national economy with American money. In addition, the US is the world’s technology leader and the largest consumer of Indian IT service exports.
At the same time, the Indian authorities are solving a difficult problem: how to develop relations with the United States without becoming dependent. As the main trump card, New Delhi uses the political interests of the US in India: if Washington openly tries to put pressure on the Indians, demanding that they actually abandon the balancing policy, the Indian political elites refuse on principle. A typical example is the story of the purchase of Russian S-400 systems, when New Delhi reacted harshly to attempts to impose secondary sanctions (a certain role in this was also played by the peculiarities of Indian political culture, in particular, the consistent rejection of unilateral sanctions not approved by the UN). The US was forced to retreat. At the same time, in less critical cases, as in the situation with the purchase of Iranian oil, India has demonstrated its readiness to take Washington’s concerns into account and stop, at least formally, its imports of Iranian oil.
Although there is a group of people in the Indian elites who are pro-American, the majority of the Indian leadership assesses things soberly, realising that the favour of the hegemon depends entirely on India’s position as a force opposing China, and it can change to anger at any time — then India will turn into “false democracy” in the American discourse. However, while India, using US interest in it, successfully avoids pressure from Washington, including in connection with the Ukrainian crisis, it will avoid this as long as its role as an anti-Chinese springboard in the perception of American politicians outweighs its connections with Russia.
India’s relationship with China is much more complex — and much more ancient. These countries have maintained both political and cultural contacts for a long time, which led to the growth of Sinophile sentiments among the Indian intelligentsia in the first half of the 20th century. After Indian independence and the victory of the Communists in the civil war in China, the new Indian elites cherished plans for a Beijing-Delhi axis, around which the former colonial and dependent states of Asia and Africa were to unite in the conditions of the Cold War. However, the border war of 1962 ruined these plans: afterwards Sinophobia in Indian intellectual, political, and military circles became a popular style, and the image of China as an insidious and unpredictable neighbour rooted in the Indian socio-political narrative.
At the moment, the Indian leadership considers China, first, as a country with which India has an unresolved territorial dispute (China occupies the Aksai Chin territory in Ladakh and claims a number of Indian territories, the largest of which is the state of Arunachal Pradesh — which China perceives as being Southern Tibet), and, second, as a potential rival in the Indian Ocean region, East Africa and Southeast Asia. In addition, India is worried about a large trade deficit with China.
At the same time, New Delhi is aware that China remains, first, India’s neighbour, with whom it will have to coexist and negotiate in any case. Second, it is one of Delhi’s largest trading partners; the well-being of the economy and millions of Indians depends on the exchange of goods. Initiatives designed to replace imports from China with domestically produced goods haven’t been successful.
On the whole, India seeks, first, to force China to recognise it as an equal centre of power with the right to its own sphere of influence; and second, to make maximum use of the confrontation with China to further improve relations with the United States. At the same time, Indian politicians are well-aware that the rivalry with China is not of an existential nature, and that the PRC does not threaten the existence of the Indian state. The current status quo suits both Beijing and New Delhi.
The question of how to build long-term relations with Moscow has become, perhaps, the most serious challenge for the Indian elites. On the one hand, Russia is a traditional partner of India, this idea is firmly rooted in the opinion of society and among the political and military elites, and these sentiments cannot be ignored. On the other hand, relations with Russia, first, are different from the obvious strategic meaning that they had in Soviet times: then both the USSR and India were alarmed by the expansionist plans of China, and the unofficial Soviet-Indian alliance guaranteed that the PRC would not risk hitting one of the neighbours without the risk of being stabbed in the back by the other. Now Russian-Chinese relations have improved to such an extent that the Indian media are seriously talking about the gradual vassalisation of Moscow by Beijing. Second, Russian-Indian relations lack an economic basis, which the Indian elites perceive as an indispensable element of a strategic partnership. Until recently, the trade turnover between Russia and India did not exceed $11 billion, the lion’s share of which consisted of military-technical cooperation and civilian nuclear power. At the same time, in the eyes of the Indian leadership, Russia retained its value as a potential partner in a future polycentric world order and an important element of the world system, allowing India to balance relations with the United States.
This stagnation has faded into the past with the beginning of the Russian special military operation in Ukraine. Russia, being cut off from Western investment, technology and markets, has found an alternative in the East. India suddenly received a whole package of proposals that are hard to refuse. The most noticeable was Russia’s willingness to sell oil at a huge discount, and India hurried to take advantage of it — once again soberly weighing the readiness of the West and the US itself to turn a blind eye to this.
At the same time, it is not clear to what extent New Delhi understands the long-term, truly strategic consequences of Russia’s turn to India — Moscow’s willingness to share existing technologies and build new production chains, up to the linking of entire areas of national economies. The scale of the ongoing changes is so great that it takes time to comprehend it, and the results of the decisions that the Indian leadership will make in the coming months will determine relations between Moscow and Delhi for decades to come.